Laura has lost her son, Simon. Gone. Disappeared. Simon was adopted and he is terminally ill. We know that he, too, is aware of his malady; we were present when he overheard a certain conversation.
The family is in Spain, the site of a former orphanage where Laura (Belen Rueda) was once a charge before she was adopted. We know that because in a prologue shot in sepia tones, we see, in time past, a little girl playing with other orphans, none of them, we learn, as fortunate as Laura.
So is it guilt, a yearning for things past or some bizarrely, unimaginable impulse that directed Laura and her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), to purchase the gothic edifice. It’s where they have taken Simon, who has disappeared — the same Simon, who shortly before, was a witness to apparitions. Did he not tell his mother that he had made a new friend with a boy named Tomas, who may or not be the child who later appears before Laura with a burlap sack over his head, holes over his eyes and nose?
Is that boy real or is Laura’s imagination at work? Tingles of anxiety may scamper up and down your spine when you learn the identity of the social worker (Montserrat Carulla), a weird woman who appears bent on some revenge. No wonder that we suspect that the orphanage was the scene of murders. Are the children Laura has invited new orphans or are they the ghosts of her childhood playmates? How much of what we see takes place in Laura’s mind? Whatever, they are mysteries Laura may or may not solve.
Perhaps she will be as haunted as we are as we watch “The Orphanage,” the Spanish thriller in the tradition of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw,” (later made into “The Innocents”), or a movie like “The Others.” There is also a strong allusion to “Peter Pan,” for it is Mrs. Darling who stands by the window awaiting her missing children. No doubt, writer Sergio Sanchez is under the influence of J.M. Barrie. Otherwise, why does Laura mention Wendy more than once?
One thing we know for sure is that either a mind or a house is haunted in Juan Antonio Bayona’s excursion into a phantasmagoric labyrinth of fear and lurking terror. Unlike the superior “The Sixth Sense,” whose memory it partially evokes, “The Orphanage” does not please or satisfy us with a definitive conclusion. We are left with an open interpretation.
I mention that observation because if you are to savor the movie in its entirety, you have to approach and apprehend it in the same way that you might absorb a series of symphonic movements. The emotional impact is as crucial as the narrative. You will forget neither after you navigate your way through this torrent of mysterious images produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who directed last year’s masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
May I add that “The Orphanage” is not “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but it does come close. You will appreciate Rueda’s magnificent performance as Laura; it is perhaps enhanced by the sad, haunting fact that Rueda also lost one of her children.
DIRECTED BY Juan Antonia Bayona
SCREENPLAY BY Sergio Sanchez
STARRING Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Montserrat Carulla. Geraldine Chaplin and Mabel Ribera. In Spanish with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes